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Harvest Excursions — annual invaders sometimes looted their way through communities during westward journey
Jul 23, 2010
by Bruce Cherney (part 3)
At the turn of the 20th century, it was projected that Manitoba would each year require over 10,000 eastern labourers for the harvest, but Manitoba farmers claimed they were receiving far fewer men than needed. The complaint was that Harvest Excursions were arriving at the Winnipeg stations in the thousands, but many of their number then acquired tickets for points further west, bypassing Manitoba farms in favour of the wheatfields of Saskatchewan and Alberta.
“Of 6,000 who have arrived in the west,” the Manitoba Free Press reported on September 7, 1907, “only 2,000 remained in Manitoba, and from Carberry, Virden, Pilot Mound, Deloraine, Gilbert Plains, Pierson, Morris and almost all points come earnest demands for men.”
On December 18, 1909, Almon James “A.J.” Cotton, who became known in Treherne as the “Wheat King” of Manitoba  and later took up large-scale farming in the Swan River Valley, wrote to William Williams, a friend from Bowmanville, Ontario, about the difficulty of obtaining men for the harvest. “We paid $2.50 per day all through the harvest and thrashing (sic) and men were scarce at that” (The Wheat King: Selected Letters and Papers of A.J. Cotton, 1888-1913, edited by Wendy Owen). 
Manitoba government officials, such as Joseph Burke, tried to entice those arriving Eastern Canadians to remain by relating that farm workers were in great demand in the province at good wages. In 1907, the men were asked to stay in Winnipeg overnight in order to become acquainted with the local farm labour situation, “but quite a number decided to go out by the special harvesters’ trains which left ... for Moose Jaw and intermediate points on the Main (CPR) line ...” 
A further incentive for excursionists arriving from the Maritimes to proceed  further west was the possibility of gaining employment in the coal mines — an occupation very familiar to many of them — of Alberta following their participation in the harvest. “These men acted wisely in their movements, notwithstanding the complaints made that they should have remained in Manitoba,” wrote Hugh McKellar, the commissioner of the Moose Jaw Board of Trade, in a September 5, 1907,
letter to the Free Press.
By taking positions in the mines after the harvest, the Maritimers could extend their employment in the West by up to six months and earn a great deal more money.
“The ticket agents at the Winnipeg (CPR) depot are furnished with lists of points at which men are needed,” reported the newspaper on September 11, 1905, “but the arrivals will seldom accept suggestions. They have been told repeatedly that the demand has been filled in Saskatchewan, but they continue to flock there, and Manitoba farmers have to get along as best they can.”
Some of those arriving in the 1905 excursion trains were young women seeking jobs as teachers, while others wanted to become “kitchen help.” A teaching position in Manitoba paid double, even triple, the salary earned in the Maritimes, which drew hundreds of young women westward. A train pulling into the Union Station at Water Avenue, just east of Main Street, at one o’clock in the afternoon in August 1906, disgorged 2,000 excursionists, five per cent of whom were women.
Reporting on the arrival of 6,000 easterners on August 21, 1897, the Daily Nor’Wester said there were a great number of “sisters and their cousins and their aunts, and even some who were no doubt grandmothers, not to speak of infants in arms and urchins dragged mercilessly along by parents” debarking from the Harvest Excursion trains who had taken advantage of the cheap fares offered to travel west. 
One woman taking advantage of the low-cost tickets for the Harvest Excursions gave birth to a baby boy while aboard a train. A collection was taken up for the young mother and $31.40 was raised. But when the train arrived in Winnipeg, the woman and her child could not be found. It was thought the mother and new-born “must have been removed from the train at North Bay,” reported the August 31, 1907, Free Press. At Winnipeg, the money collected was handed over to the newspaper with the request that it be donated to the Winnipeg General Hospital in the event the mother and child could not be located. 
Despite the presence of women aboard the trains, most of the excursionists were young men full of youthful exuberance, which at times got totally out of hand.
The August 15, 1901, the Winnipeg-based Telegram proclaimed in a headline, Harvesters Take a Town: Hungry and Thirsty ‘Blue Noses’ Help Themselves at Schreiber.” The Blue Noses referred to were Nova Scotians, particularly Cape Breton Islanders.
Winnipeg Police Chief John McCrae received a telegram from the besieged town, warning that the war party was on its way to the city and to prepare for the worst.
Apparently, the men had been drinking heavily before reaching Schreiber, Ontario, along the north shore of Lake Superior. During stops after Ottawa, the men rushed into the nearest store or saloon, ordered provisions and refreshments and rushed out without paying. When they arrived at the Schreiber station, the revelers took the opportunity to visit the towns saloons and replenish their flasks, as well as help themselves to provisions. When a cry arose that the train was leaving, the men seized liquor and goods without going through the formality of paying.
“An attempt was made to stop the progress of the excursionists to the train and a free fight resulted,” reported the Telegram. “It appears that considerable damage was done to furniture in the saloons and a grocery store was broken into and for a time the excursionists run the town.”
At other stops along the shores of Lake Superior, hungry excursionists made raids on the tiny gardens that settlers planted on the sparse soil of the region to help eke out a meagre existence. In one instance, “they met a man of iron and blood,” who decided to defend his property. The men got as far as the garden fence when the landowner appeared at his cottage door armed with a shotgun. He announced his intention to “make salt sifters of their hides” if they didn’t get off his property. Most of the harvesters fled, but a few decided to test his mettle. The man raised his gun to his shoulder and fired high, sending the few remaining excursionists scurrying back to the safety of the train.
At Fort William, a saloon owner closed his premises to avoid a similar fate as the pub owners at Schreiber, but his action only antagonized the excursionists. The harvesters kicked in the saloon door, the proprietor was knocked down and “his entire supply of bottled goods was cleaned out” without a cent being received in payment.
At Fort William, only four of the looters were identified and arrested, after which the train was allowed to proceed.
Saloon owners, shop keepers and residents along the harvest trains’ route came to fear the excursionists briefly passing through.
The Free Press received an August 24, 1905, letter to the editor from an individual writing under the name “One of the Persecuted.”  The letter writer commented on the “conduct of the young ‘hopefuls’” aboard the Harvest Excursions, saying the residents were filled with apprehension and dread as the trains travelled through the Rainy River district due to the “predatory attacks” of the harvesters.
The writer accused the excursionists of throwing empty beer and whiskey bottles at anyone near the tracks as the special trains rushed past. In one instance, a section hand working east of Ignace was struck by a beer bottle hurled through a train window by a harvester, killing the railroad worker.
Due to the menace posed by the harvesters, the letter writer said the people living in the district had no choice but to take matters into their own hands to protect themselves and their property.
In his article for the book Cape Breton at 200, A.A. MacKenzie wrote of an incident reported by an Antigonish, Nova Scotia woman travelling west on a Harvest Excursion to take up a teaching position. The woman said a Sydney Mines man was carried aboard the train dying of bullet wounds. Doukobors armed with guns had been waiting for the train as it passed through Northern Ontario. The armed citizenry were intent of preventing being attacked by excursionists as had been the fate of others when an earlier train passed.
One Edmonton newspaper wryly commented: “The harvest trains are running. It is time for the people of Northern Ontario to take to the woods.”
Harvest Excursions carrying Maritimers often appeared at the Winnipeg CPR station with all the windows smashed, earning these trains the nickname “fresh-air specials.”
Some of the behaviour exhibited by Nova Scotians can be attributed to the lack of money they possessed as they travelled west. Often, they were virtually penniless, having spent nearly all they had on a ticket. Along the way, the more unscrupulous merchants tended to double or even quadruple the price of goods in anticipation of their arrival, which only served to intensify their anger. For the more destitute travellers, it became a question of looting or starving, as the railways provided neither food nor refreshments during their westward journey.
The CPR was able to convince most of the merchants along the route that it was in their best interests to sell provisions at a reasonable price. Merchants suffering the wrath of the excursionists soon learned the wisdom of this warning.
Some of the legitimate complaints made by the easterners were resolved by not resorting to such raucous behaviour. 
The Telegram on August 19, 1902, reported several peaceful demonstrations involving men unable to get work despite the promises made by railway and government agents. About 40 “dead broke” men marched from the CPR station to Winnipeg city hall where they were met by city clerk C.J. Brown as Mayor John Arbuthnot was absent on other business. The city clerk told the gathering he was not in a position to help them, but would present their case to the Manitoba government.
What prompted the demonstration were brief trips by some excursionists to the wheatfields along the CPR main line west of Winnipeg, where they concluded work was not as plentiful as promised. Embittered by their experience, they returned to Winnipeg where the 40 men, claiming to represent 400 excursionists unable to find employment, became the spokesmen for the harvesters.
Deputy agriculture minister Hugh McKellar went to the CPR depot and addressed the men in the waiting room. By this time, their ranks at the station had been swelled by the arrival of additional excursionists from the east. McKellar promised that there would be work for all. In the meanwhile, he said the province would would do everything in its power to help them until they were gainfully employed. The more needy men were even allowed to spend the night in the nearby immigration hall. 
Meetings were held on August 19 at the CPR station, where speakers addressing an estimated 800 men claimed the railway company was unwilling to provide fares home in the absence of work.
“We want to go back to our native land and if the CPR does not take us back we will act,” proclaimed a young man named Mitchell, who mounted a box at the end of the station platform to deliver his oratory. Mitchell had earlier been in Brandon, where he boasted of his involvement in a similar demonstration as well as helping out about 150 excursionists stranded in the prairie community get “breakfast and bed.” 
A gruff voice in the back of the crowd replied to Mitchell’s threat by saying, “Stow it mate, or we won’t get no grub and bed.”
When the provincial government announced its intention to provide the men with a place to sleep as well as breakfast, the men dispersed. It was in the government’s best interests to make this pledge, as a mob, known through past experience to be prone to violent outbursts, was an unsettling presence in the city. 
Many of the men were alleged in newspapers to have not received jobs during their “brief” sojourn outside the city because of too high wage expectations. The Telegram reported many had demanded $60 a month plus board, while farmers were only offering either $35 or $40. The men’s expectations were overly-optimistic due to unfounded rumours circulating in Nova Scotia and aboard the trains about the wealth of the West and the greater-than-reality wages there for the asking.
William Stett, the assistant general passenger agent for the CPR, told a Telegram reporter: “Some of the harvesters have become disheartened because they have not secured work at big wages immediately upon their arrival here. Many of them have applied to the company to be taken back. It is just as well to state now that while we know the men can find employment here (and) none will be sent back free, until a certificate can be shown to the effect that they have actually worked in the province.”
The harvesters were pacified by the assurances they received, and eventually made their way to farms where their labour was appreciated, although at a less-than-expected wages.
On August 9, 1902, an interview with harvester George H. Bradbury from Ontario shed more light on the causes of the 1901 demonstrations in Brandon and Winnipeg. He blamed the Manitoba department of agriculture as well as the CPR for the problems experienced a year earlier. Bradbury said the Manitoba government was at fault because it failed to grasp the consequences of men being forced to find their own employment without the benefit of guidance from provincial officials.
Bradbury said the CPR “failed to furnish anything like proper transportation. Trains of eight and ten cars, packed to the doors, left the east, many of the cars unfit to carry men on such a journey.”
The harvester singled out the use of picnic cars, which were normally only used for short jaunts through the Gatineau Valley in Québec near Ottawa, as particularly unfit for the lengthy journey westward. Using the short-haul picnic cars angered the men, who “were packed in as close as they could sit.”  
Bradbury repeated the complaint made a year earlier that the wages offered by farmers were not those promised to the harvesters by railway and government officials. He also deplored the lack of organization for job placement.
“It ought to be made very plain by the authorities that these excursions are not picnic parties,” he said.
 (Next week: part 4)